Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday that the purpose of China's People's Liberation Army is not to protect its homeland but to "expand a Chinese empire." Earlier this month, he warned China not to treat the South China Sea "as its maritime empire."
Pompeo is actually way behind the curve. China has been in one form or another an empire for thousands of years. And its current imperial incarnation is not specifically because of its actions in the South China Sea.
Great-power competition has forever been an imperial activity. One need not obsess, as Pompeo seems to be doing, about China being an empire. The real issue is: What kind of empire is China?
Is it a land empire or a sea empire? Is it a missionary empire like the US, that seeks to impose its universal values, or something else? These categories all portend different outcomes in a great-power struggle with China. And distinctions are just as relevant today as they were centuries and millennia ago.
Land empires, such as those of the Mongols and Russia under the Tsars, have tended to be both insecure and aggressive, emphasizing hard power. That's because land borders are easily violated, so that the imperial power feels perennially insecure. Maritime empires such as those of Venice, Britain and the US ever since it invaded the Philippines in 1898 have overall tended to emphasize trade and commerce, and thus have been more benign, since seas and oceans offer them better natural protection, even as harbors are open to cosmopolitan influences.
Twenty-first century China presents a unique challenge primarily because it is an empire of both land and sea, owing to a 9,000-mile coastline along one of the world's most vital sea lanes and a continental position in Eurasia that borders historical adversaries such as India and Russia.
China's Belt and Road Initiative is best understood as an imperial project. By land, roads, railways and pipelines, China will connect across post-Soviet Central Asia to Iran, where branch lines will extend to Europe and the Middle East.
By sea, China has been building and helping to finance state-of-the-art ports with both commercial and military applications from the South China Sea across the Indian Ocean and up the Red Sea to the eastern Mediterranean. Pointing out that a number of these ports and related projects make little economic sense is to ignore their geopolitical — and therefore, imperial and mercantile — significance. Where container ships have gone, warships have followed.
Given this dual nature, China will be both aggressive and cosmopolitan. Thus it represses subject peoples such as the Uighur Muslims, who stand in the path of Belt and Road on land, while shipping consumer appliances to Africa and beyond with its merchant fleet and marketing vital products for the world economy, such as Huawei Technology Co.'s 5G network.
Whereas the US has historically been a missionary power around the globe, proselytizing the ideals of democracy and human rights, China has no such impulses. It will work with regimes regardless of their values, authoritarian or not — with Russian President Vladimir Putin or German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it doesn't matter. So while China seeks to topple the existing hierarchy of powers by overtaking the US, in another way it is a status-quo imperium. Unlike the US, which has often sought to change the internal structures and value systems of countries it categorizes as authoritarian, China seeks no changes in the domestic arrangements of individual states.
China has engaged in port development projects with repressive Myanmar and Pakistan, but also with democratic Greece and Italy. China's alliance with Russia may have more to do with the geopolitics of natural gas than with the fact that both countries are now dictatorships.
The newly revealed 25-year strategic and economic partnership between China and Iran, potentially worth hundreds of billions of dollars, has been viewed as an alliance between two authoritarian powers. But China's main interest is Iran's advantageous location between the Middle East and Central Asia, its abundance of oil and natural gas, and its educated population of 83 million potential consumers. Were Iran to have a counterrevolution and become more liberal, China would be just as interested in this strategic relationship.
China is immoral internally, but amoral externally. Repression of the Uighurs and Tibetans, the crackdown in Hong Kong, potential aggression against Taiwan — these are baked into China's imperial geography of non-Han peoples surrounding China's ethnic Han core. But beyond China's real and imagined borders, it seeks harmony rather than conflicts over values. This is not quite as self-serving as it sounds. The Chinese know that their imperial tribute system between the mid-14th and mid-19th centuries in East Asia proved that hegemony can be more stable and less bloody than Europe's balance of power system.
This tribute system "contained credible commitments by China not to exploit secondary states that accepted its authority," explains University of Southern California political scientist David C. Kang. China was the top dog, but secondary states enjoyed "substantial latitude" in their affairs.
The Chinese people are quite comfortable with their imperial history and traditions, unlike people in the West who today both deny and apologize for them. China is all about status. Respect China, and much can be accomplished in terms of international cooperation.
As Americans gear up for a so-called Cold War with China, it is important not to exaggerate Beijing's intentions. China is ruthless, but it does not seek conquest in the traditional sense, beyond its own territories and adjacent seas. It will seek to dominate and influence foreign economies, but not foreign societies and the way that they govern themselves. China is not a revolutionary power despite its communist moniker.
Nevertheless, because China behaves in imperial and mercantile terms, its relationships lack the transparency and legal norms of representative democracies. That is why Belt and Road is evolving into a subtly coercive system of opaque deal-making with which the many countries along its path, owing to their high levels of corruption, find quite compatible.
The answer to this challenge is not merely to emulate China with America's own bloodless realpolitik, as Pompeo and President Donald Trump seem to want, but to return to the enlightened realism of the Cold War and post-Cold War decades, in which human rights took their place among other national interests.
Remember that Americans lost their missionary zeal partly because of the failures in trying to impose democracy on Iraq and Afghanistan, and consequently have been living with the backlash. The US foreign policy pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other. To compete with the Chinese in imperial terms means recovering a tempered idealism that allows the world to distinguish between an enlightened West and the masters of Beijing.
Most crucially, since China has a vision for its imperial system — Belt and Road — the US requires its own vision of international order. That most effectively comes through economic, military and democratic-trending alliances of nations. An excellent example is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump tore up upon arriving in the oval office in 2017. Competing with China, and differentiating ourselves from China's values, requires resurrecting TPP and building upon it. This is something that Joe Biden should do if elected president.
China does have its limits. Beijing's actions in the former British colony of Hong Kong were probably a factor in the U.K. closing its market to Huawei's 5G network. As time goes on, Europeans are likely to become increasingly disillusioned with China's human-rights record. Soft power may be overrated, but it does matter. Lesson: China's new empire is irresistible only if the US doesn't offer an alternative.
Robert D Kaplan holds the Robert Strausz-Hupé Chair in Geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of the forthcoming "The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the US Government's Greatest Humanitarian."
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.